Deptford occupies the London Borough of Lewisham’s small area of the Thames embankment: it is tightly sandwiched between Southwark, to the west, and Greenwich, to the east. This and the stature of its neighbour, Greenwich, as a World Heritage Centre has cast Deptford into unwarranted obscurity.
Deptford has been a settlement at least since the Roman occupation. It lies on the Thames floodplain and has been directly in the path of countless great journeys to and from Europe via Dover. It has also seen the passing of an equal number of pilgrims going to Canterbury, from the poorest to Kings.
When Henry VIII designated this small shipbuilding town his principle Royal Naval Dockyard it grew into one of the largest towns in England. Its population rose to over 10,000 people. This has to be seen in the context of Deptford not being part of London but lying in the much wilder Kent countryside. The City of London was miles distant, separated too from its neighbour Westminster. Thus Deptford became a very important town, the place where the great British naval fleet was built, victualled, repaired and from whence it set sail. The early colonies, for good or bad, started here.
Peter the Great visited Deptford in 1698 in order to learn how to build a Russian Navy. He stayed at and by all accounts did much damage to Sayes Court which was close to the Dockyard. The playwright Christopher Marlowe was another known to enjoy roistering in Deptford but his final visit led to his murder and burial at St. Nicholas’ Church at Stowage in Deptford.
St. Paul’s in 1822
Thus in 1711 Deptford had become a large and rather independent community. Its people were literate, skilled workers somewhat inclined towards both religious and political dissent. Some 20 years before a new township had been established across the Atlantic on the banks of the Delaware; this too was called Deptford. The attractions of the New World must have been obvious to the educated populace of Deptford.
The new Tory Government, elected in 1710, decided to take action and established the Commission for building Fifty New Churches. These would be magnificent buildings designed as signs of power as much as piety. They would impress the people by being at least as good as the best the Roman Catholics were building hear and elsewhere in Europe and they would push the nonconformist churches into the shade!
Commissioners were appointed, one was Nicholas Hawksmore who designed St. Alfege in Greenwich, Christchurch in Spitalfields, St. George in Bloomsbury and many others. Another was Thomas Archer who designed two other churches, St. John in Smith Square, Westminster – much used in the performance and recording of music – and Birmingham Cathedral.
Archer started at Deptford almost immediately and brought to the design his understanding of Roman Baroque and his great flare for originality that is shown in almost every element. The fabric and most of the decoration was complete by 1720 but work continued for another 10 years until St. Paul’s was consecrated in 1730.
Deptford waters became too shallow for larger vessels that were being built and the Dockyard moved downstream. Deptford remained the victualling yard for the Navy but the character of Deptford inevitably changed. New much smaller industries came and, in their turn, moved on or died. Today most major industry has departed from the this part of the Thames and Deptford has no big employers left. It retains the working wharf at Convoys where paper is imported for the print industry: Deptford is still known as Port Deptford throughout Scandinavia.
The history and a lot of the architectural evidence of that history remains as it does along the great stretch of the south riverside from the far edge of Southwark down to Chatham and beyond.
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